One of America’s Largest Publishers Is Screwing Over Libraries

Libraries are fighting Macmillan Publishers over an ebook embargo that would make borrowing new ebooks much harder for folks.
One of America’s Largest Publishers Is Screwing Over Libraries
Image: Bernd Weissbrod/picture alliance via Getty Images

Finding new ebooks from your favorite authors at your local library is about to get a lot harder.

Macmillan, one of America’s biggest publishers, is putting an embargo on all its new ebooks. Starting November 1, libraries will have to wait eight weeks before they’re allowed to purchase digital copies of Macmillans new books. Select libraries in select markets will be allowed to purchase one copy.

As for what that will mean for library patrons, consider that Macmillan owns several important imprints, including the popular sci-fi imprint Tor Books. Starting next month, when Tor Books—who has published John Scalzi, Philip K. Dick, and Cory Doctrow—releases a new book, your local library may not have a digital copy for the first eight weeks its out. If you’re lucky and you live in a city with a big library system like New York, you can get on a waitlist to borrow the one copy it’ll have.


The American Library Association (ALA)—a nonprofit organization that promotes libraries and education—is leading a campaign against Macmillan’s new embargo. It’s called ebooksforall, and its petition has more than 160,000 signatures at the time of writing. Macmillan is the only publisher proposing this change so far, but the other big four—Hachette, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins—are certainly watching.

“Libraries need to take an aggressive stand on the issue of digital content, fight for the right to equitable access, and pushback against the current pricing model imposed by the big five publishers,” Sari Feldman, the retired executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library and former president of the ALA, told me over the phone.

Motherboard reached out to Macmillan for a statement but has not heard back yet.

Ebooks have created an unprecedented opportunity to spread knowledge and create new readers. Libraries could, and should, be a vector through which ebooks flow, just like paper editions. In practice, however, digital books give publishers control over every step of the distribution process. Macmillan’s embargo is just the latest turn of the screw.

According to Feldman, libraries pay three-to-four times as much for ebooks as consumers do. In contrast, libraries buy paper books at a discount. Feldman pointed to Silent Patient, a best selling thriller Macmillian published in February, 2019. On Amazon, a consumer can pick up a hardcover edition for $13.49, or an ebook for $13.99. “Libraries are paying $60 for it,” Feldman said.


Physical books are covered by what copyright law calls the “first sale doctrine.” The purchaser of a physical book can give it away, resell it, or lend it out at will. No such guarantee exists for digital copies of books. Every publisher is different, but the library rights to digital books typically expire after two years, or 52 lends. At that point, the library has to purchase another digital license for the ebook.

According to Feldman, most books are not that popular and simply don’t circulate through the library system. In Feldman’s library system, digital books went out an average of seven times each. “So if we’re paying three to four times as much and each copy is only circulating, on average, saven times, I contend that publishers are doing quite well,” she said.

According to Macmillan CEO John Sargent, however, publishers aren’t doing well and libraries are to blame. “Library reads are currently 45% of our total digital book reads in the U.S. and growing. They are cannibalizing our digital sales,” Sargent said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal about the ebook embargo.

According to The Wall Street Journal, libraries only generate 15 percent of Macmillan’s total annual ebook sales and it earns as little as $1.15 each time a book is lent. Macmillian decided to enforce the new embargo after testing out the policy with Tor’s ebooks, and Sargent said that the embargo bolstered Tor’s sales during the test period.


According to Steve Potash, founder and CEO of ebook company OverDrive, this claim is "more than nonsense." He would know: OverDrive is the leading distributor of ebooks to libraries, partnering with more than 43,000 schools and libraries in 75 different countries.

“The ebook model Macmillan uses to support this math is one they created: Two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first," Potash said in a written response to Sargent’s interview in The Wall Street Journal. "Macmillan also developed the library pricing for this model. For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming—as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic.”

Macmillan’s claim of only making $1.15 per book is incredibly misleading, Potash argued. “Seventy-nine percent expired and were removed from library catalogs because the two-year limit occurred first—not because they were checked out 52 times,” he said. In reality, the average is about 11.5 lends. According to Potash, the cost to the library is $6.07 every time someone borrows a Macmillan book.

Potash said in an interview that, far from helping sales, the embargo will hurt Macmillan. “People that discover a book through the library, on average, buy more retail books. Print and retail. These are their best customers,” Potash said. “If they want to frustrate [a] consumer at the library, I believe it will have a chilling impact on their brands, their authors, and their retail sales. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Libraries are often the place where young readers go to learn about the books they’re curious about. They discover new authors and books they might never have picked up otherwise. Every author has a story about how much the library meant to them. In South Carolina, where I live, the library is one of the only sources for books that isn’t Amazon.

“What publishers forget is that we have a common goal of creating readers,” Feldman said. “And we’re in a climate where we’re not seeing growth in the American public reading. We should be working together to increase access and get more people reading.”